If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking a few times a month, and it's better late than never! Most reviews nowadays are labeled "FTP:" and you should read THIS PRIMER to understand why. Also, while they're marked nowadays, many of the site's older reviews (i.e. 2010 or older) do contain unannounced spoilers, so tread carefully! Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.


The Nun II (2023)

SEPTEMBER 15, 2023


I assume it’s only because The Nun was released in September (i.e. the start of the spooky season) that it became the highest grossing entry of the Conjuring universe, as nearly all the of others were released in the summer and didn’t get that same “well it’ll give us a few scares, so let’s go” boost. Because I don’t think anyone would dare to claim it was their favorite entry – it was a pretty by-the-numbers jump scare machine with the flimisiest connection yet to the main series (even the otherwise cast off Curse of La Llorona had one of the supporting characters make an appearance). But it’s the big numbers on boxofficemojo, not user reviews, that decide whether or not a film gets a sequel, so here we are five years later with The Nun II, which brings back two of the previous film’s heroes along with (duh) the titular Nun.

But it does so awkwardly, and starts the movie off on a weird note that takes a while for it to recover from. It opens on a priest being immolated by the nun in a church in France, and then reintroduces Maurice, aka “Frenchie”, the kindly villager who has relocated to France himself, now working at a boarding school. If you don’t recall, the end of the first film had him being possessed by Valak the demon (the same spirit inside the nun, I think? I can’t really follow this gibberish across several years/installments), with a credits scene showing he was still possessed decades later as the Warrens attempted to exorcise him prior to the events of the first Conjuring. Since this movie takes place in between those two events, we know he’s possessed, but that is hidden from us until we also catch up with Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who is now living at a convent in Italy and trying to live a peaceful, demonic nun free life (aren't we all?). Alas, we learn that the priest we saw immolated at the beginning was merely the newest in a string of mysterious deaths of clergy folk, and the cardinal comes calling to tell Irene they need her help because they are pretty sure it’s the same demon she fought before.

And here’s where it gets confusing: after explaining away Demian Bichir’s character as having died of cholera in between movies, the cardinal tells Irene she’s the only other person alive who has dealt with this demon. But… she isn’t? And we already got reacquainted with the other one who did? It’s very awkward; it really felt like we should have met up with Irene first and then, when she gets the assignment, have her say something like “Well, there is someone else who faced Valak…” and THEN catch up with Frenchie/Maurice (he goes by the latter). But the way it plays out, it almost seems to be suggesting he’s a different character entirely for a while until his first “the demon takes over” moment. Which is another awkward thing about the movie, as we all know he’s possessed but he doesn’t become a full menace until the third act, so until then he just has these weird moments that affect no one else, so that he can keep being the handsome hero for the character scenes.

It also takes a while for Irene to get to the school, as she’s on a fact finding mission with another nun played by Storm Reid. Honestly I would probably prefer a movie about the two of them making their way through a spooky version of National Treasure or Indiana Jones (there’s a scene where they literally need to have a beam of light point the way to a relic!) than go through the usual jump scare motions with the girls at the school, but that wouldn’t sell tickets so I get it. At least once she finally gets there and reunites with Frenchie the movie kicks into higher gear, and the third act is actually pretty exciting as all hell is breaking loose. There’s a random goat devil beast running around, plus the possessed Frenchie and the Nun, all of them causing havoc as our heroes constantly run through the halls and smash through windows and what not. Sometimes it seems like a character disappears for too long of a time, such as the obligatory kindly teacher who has a burgeoning romance with Frenchie (poor Irene the nun can’t get any of that, so they just give each other longing looks), but it’s all exciting enough not to matter too much.

That said, I had to dock this section a point for not killing any of the mean girls who torment the teacher’s daughter, a soft spoken type who is also BFFs with Frenchie. Early on they steal a bracelet from her, and later they trap her in a room with the demon (not intentionally, but the intent was still the same – scare the hell out of her!), so along with the film’s R rating it really feels like they’re going to get a justified demise. But no! One of them is stabbed in the shoulder by the goat thing, and that’s it. Why even bother with all this mean girl stuff if there’s no payoff for it? They don’t apologize to her or anything, and the girl’s mom even puts herself in harm’s way to protect the jerks (as does Reid, who alas has nothing of her own to do once they arrive at the school). The R is earned from a trio of onscreen/fairly gnarly kills, but those brief moments are it – it felt very PG13 otherwise. To be fair, the first Conjuring famously got an R for simply being too scary (James Wan intended it to be PG13 but the MPAA wouldn’t budge), but at this point it seems they’re just slapping the R on out of tradition. There’s nothing in here that elevates it above Insidious 5 (PG13) in that department, so if they’re going to keep making this an R rated franchise, they should at least earn it. These films tend to outgross the PG13 Insidious ones, so the R clearly isn't hurting ticket sales. Embrace it!

But even if it was rated PG, I think I’d feel the same way: the formula for this franchise is getting pretty creaky after nine entries (three Conjurings, three Annabelles, two Nuns, and La Llorona). At least the Conjurings (and Annabelle 3, briefly) have the Warren characters to give them a boost, since they are so charming and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are endlessly appealing to watch, but the other films have yet to give us characters that engaging. Taissa’s Irene has a slightly meatier role to play this time, as she finds herself trying to mold Reid’s character into a good nun while also dealing with her spooky past and unresolved longing for Frenchie (who she also may have to kill to stop the demon), but nothing they can give her to say will ever really stop distracting us from the baffling casting choice to have “Lorraine Warren’s sister” take lead on two films when she’s not actually related to her. They even double down on it this time, with a series of flashbacks about Irene’s mother who was sent to a mental institution for babbling about demons and such, with Irene saying she hasn’t seen her since – a perfect opportunity to just say the woman got out of the hospital, met a man, and gave birth to a daughter named Lorraine. But no, they still do nothing with this connection, and it doesn’t help that Taissa looks more like Vera than ever in a few shots.

And too many of the films have the same structure, in that there’s a place where the haunting is and then our protagonist is elsewhere getting back story. Scare scene, exposition dump, scare scene, exposition dump, over and over until they finally all get together in the house/school/whatever for a third act blow out. Sometimes the heroes will have jump scare scenes of their own, with the filmmakers hoping we don’t notice the discrepancy of the supernatural force seemingly being in two places at once. Even the scares seem to be generated from a template, where they see a scary thing and then the scary thing makes a “surprise” second appearance, always after an extended quiet moment where the little girl looks down a hall or into a darkened corner or something. There’s a decent one here where the Nun suddenly turns into a bunch of birds that fly at the hero, but otherwise they might as well have just deep faked these actors’ faces over the ones in previous Conjuverse movies, save a few bucks.

Speaking of the Nun, she's curiously not in the movie all that much. I'd estimate Bonnie Aarons has less than two minutes of screentime in the 110 minute film, which is weird for a sequel in a series named THE NUN. I think we spend more time looking at *images* of her specter (like in that silly magazine article collage from the trailers, and another bit where the little girl thinks she sees her but turns out to be a distinctive pattern on a crumbling wall) than her as an actual presence, and when she does appear she's mostly just standing there. I momentarily wondered if Aarons actually returned at all or if they just deep faked her image over a double for the handful of shots they bothered to include the character, as the role is that minimal and inert. With the house full of teenaged girls (again, some quite mean!) this could have been a slasher of sorts with the Nun wiping them out one by one until Taissa arrived to stop her, but instead she's treated as an afterthought. Very weird.

I dunno. There are worse entries (namely, the first Nun and La Llorona), but the sameyness is also leaving me indifferent even though there are improvements here and there. Like yes, this one’s better, but it’s also pretty similar, so we lose the novelty. With so many stories to mine from the Warren’s basement collection, it seems silly to keep making sequels to the spinoffs, even if they tend to improve on their originals (Annabelle Comes Home remains the best of the entire spinoff collection in my eyes). At least with a different demonic entity and a new cast to meet, the genericness of the scare scenes can be offset by everything else being fresh – what happened to the Crooked Man movie? But instead the end of this one just reminds us that another Conjuring is coming. Maybe Patrick Wilson can direct that one too? At least we can maybe get a new Ghost song out of the deal.

What say you?


FTP: Teen Wolf Too (1987)

AUGUST 28, 2023


I've had Teen Wolf *and* Teen Wolf Too sitting in the pile since they came out from Scream Factory 5-6 years ago, upgrades from a barebones double feature release on DVD that must have made their fans very happy. But I was not among them; I saw the first film as a kid and didn't think much of it then, and never bothered with the sequel. And it turns out my 6-7 year old self was correct in thinking the first one wasn't very good, but what I only now realized was that watching them back to back did the sequel no favors, since it's pretty much the same movie that wasn't that good in the first place.

I mean, honestly, if more people actually saw the second film (in which original star Michael J Fox is only mentioned; new star Jason Bateman is said to be the character's cousin) it'd probably be namechecked along with Home Alone and Hangover sequels for being so lazy when it came to plot points. Bateman's character turns into a werewolf when stressed, butts heads with the head of the school he attends, ignores the "girl next door" type who is in love with him in favor of a snobby girl, becomes popular due to his werewolf antics helping him with a sport (basketball there, boxing here), etc. At no point does the film even try to do anything different, and eventually I realized that perhaps it wasn't Bateman's substitution that was the problem, but that it gave the filmmakers license to repeat everything, whereas with Fox at least they'd have to give him SOMETHING different to do unless they wanted to just give the character amnesia.

But at least they allowed Bateman to play a different character, as others weren't so lucky. The wacky Stiles returns with a different actor, as does Coach Finstock, who (as with the first film, at least for me) is the only one who got any laughs out of me. The actors playing Coach look and act a lot alike, but the two Stiles are very different, which makes me wonder why they bothered saying it was the same character if it wasn't going to be the same actor and they'd have different vibes (beyond a general "the cool buddy" presence)? It's not the only odd decision in the movie, but it's one that will likely bug people the most. The only two people who DID return are Mark Holton as (oof) Chubby, and James Hampton as Fox's character's dad, who is Bateman's uncle (Bateman's parents are vaguely dead, another recycle from the first which had Fox's mom's unexplained death), neither of which I assume were enough to make up for Fox's absence among fans (nothing against Bateman, of course. He's fine.)

The only real change is that it seems they decided since the first one wasn't that funny anyway, they'd just largely omit jokes altogether this time around. There are a few antics and sight gags here and there, and again the Coach is amusing because he's always so checked out (Bateman asks if he has any advice while the former is getting his ass kicked in the boxing match, and Coach replies "No?" as if he didn't even understand why he was being asked - it was my only audible laugh for the entire film), but mostly it's just kind of coasting through each scene and setpiece as if the sheer silliness of a guy (occasionally) becoming a wolf would be enough of an audience pleaser. I mean, it barely worked the first time around, and now we don't even have the novelty? It's the rare sequel that would actually work slightly better if you hadn't seen or even been aware of the first movie at all.

It's also odd that they don't really explore the werewolf legacy, as you'd expect a sequel to get into the mythology of such things. But honestly I feel Bateman spends even less time than Fox did in wolf mode (he once again opts to have his final sports match in human form, leaving the wolf out of the last act entirely), though the design is pretty bad and there are no transformation effects to speak of, so whatever. At one point Hampton transforms into a wolf and then back to human in between cuts (Bateman asks him to do so, as he's embarrassed about it all), so apparently it's something that only takes about a second or two. Outside of the repeat of the school head being threatened by a werewolf who is protective of the lead (Hampton in the original, Bateman's teacher here, played by Kim Darby), one could tune in to the final 20-25 minutes of this movie and not even realize it was about a werewolf at all.

The weirdness continues into the bonus features, which are presented as interviews with a few key players (director Christopher Leitch, a few of the supporting actors), but have clearly been broken up from a longer retrospective (which is what was offered on the first film), as the participants appear in the other folks' interviews as well, as do people who worked on the first movie and a film historian type. I assume they wanted to make the package more attractive by touting five bonus features instead of just one, but I mean... I'm pretty sure the people that wanted this movie were going to buy it regardless. None of them were particularly enlightening beyond the relief that no one seems to be of the illusion that the movie was very good, though the new Stiles does note that he was originally doing improv that the director liked, and perhaps would have made the movie funnier, but the producers didn't care for it and told them both to just stick to the script from then on. No new ideas or creativity allowed onscreen in Teen Wolf Too!

What say you?


FTP: Bloody Knuckles (2014)

AUGUST 21, 2023


I must apologize to Bloody Knuckles, for I recently dubbed 11.22.63 as the oldest disc in the pile but according to Amazon, this film hit disc nearly a year before that. Now it’s possible I got it through trivia or something, but it’s from Artsploitation, and I was definitely on their list for a while (and to the best of my knowledge, they don’t donate anything to our monthly trivia game), so it’s a safe bet that it’s been there for a whopping eight years now, just waiting to catch my eye. But that’s the thing – the spine is so minimalist I literally never noticed it! I’ve obviously spent a lot of time looking at these discs over the past few years (since I became hellbent on finally watching them all – I’m down to the last 20 or so!) and I can’t even really see the title on the spine, so I have apparently just glossed right past it every time I went hunting for something to watch.

I mean, the runtime is under 90 minutes – SURELY I would have gravitated toward it by now as long runtimes are the very things that prevent me from ever pulling out certain titles (anything over two hours might as well punch me in the junk while they’re at it, since they’re obviously not trying to appeal to my interests). Plus it’s a Canadian horror comedy, which tend to be hit or miss but when they DO hit I find them pretty enjoyable one time watches, which again is an ideal “pile” movie: something I like watching but not so much that I want to keep it in the permanent collection. So the lesson here is to design spines that are just as attractive as the covers, because for space-starved folks like myself, the spines may be all we ever see.

Anyway it’s a pretty breezy movie about an indie comic book artist named Travis who has recently put out an issue that mocks the local crime lord, Mr. Fong. Fong doesn’t find it very amusing, as you might expect, so he cuts Travis’ hand off to teach him a lesson (and, yes, prevent him from making any more comics). Travis becomes depressed and starts drinking the day away, but one day wakes up to see his disembodied hand back in his room, moving around on its own and even communicating with him via a type-to-speech program on his computer. And then the hand starts going about taking revenge on Fong and his men, paving the way for a showdown where Travis and his hand must literally/figuratively come together and take down the bad guy.

Yes, it’s pretty dumb, but there’s an odd charm to the whole affair, due in part to how little the sight of a disembodied hand scampering around like Thing seems to bother anyone. Travis treats it as an annoyance and everyone else just kind of goes with it, which makes it funnier. Never like, falling out of your seat laughing-level funny, but (to use the word again) a breezy kind of funny; I found myself smiling through most of it, not to mention impressed with the hand effects on what was clearly not a big budgeted movie. There’s a lot of random humor (I like that the bad guys’ response to stealing a purse is to go to the movies with the cash), plus a surprisingly timely gag where a couple who is into S&M sex play has “Giuliani” as their safe word. This was 2014, pre-Trump stuff and here I am watching it just days after the dummy got a mug shot for his crimes. That’s just gold right there.

The only issue I had was that it’s a horror comedy with some unpleasant moments, which throws the tone off. Several of Travis’ pals are brutally killed in the film, and it seemed excessive and unnecessary for this kind of movie. It’s hard not to think about Idle Hands, and the way they handled his pals’ deaths in that movie worked for its slacker tone, but here the deaths – in particular a throat slashing – seem more in line with French extreme fare from the 00s. Maybe they just wanted to show off their FX work or something, but it really kinda bummed me out in what was otherwise a “hangout” kind of genre film. Because when you have brutal deaths of nice people in this sort of thing, it feels like you’re supposed to be taking everything seriously, which is a problem for a movie about a disembodied hand running around and occasionally flipping people off. To be fair there is some South Park-ian “let’s offend everyone” type humor at times (the movie starts off with a mentally disabled man melting and ends with a gag about a Nazi dildo, so…), but the deaths aren’t played for laughs, so it doesn’t quite fit the vibe.

Director Matt O’Mahoney offers a commentary, though it seems somewhat edited at times, as more than one stretch of silence made me wonder if I had accidentally toggled it off, and he checks out before the movie even ends. That said it’s a decent enough track; I was happy he acknowledged the Street Trash vibes of the opening, and he tells a story about an actor who bowed out of the movie at the 11th hour because he inexplicably decided to ask his church group for permission to act in it (!) and they unsurprisingly said no. He also gets a little bit more into the film’s underlying message of freedom of speech and artists’ rights, something I wish was a little more prominent in the movie, but at least he’s on the right side of such things so that’s fine. He also pops up in a series of interviews with various outlets, including a trip to DiabolikDVD, which is like the Criterion Closet for folks who like movies where peoples’ heads get cut off on the regular. There are also some short films and deleted scenes, so it’s a decent package but could have used some insight from O’Mahoney’s collaborators, in particular Krista Magnusson who played the hand.

O’Mahoney has made several shorts, so it’s not too shocking the film has some pacing issues that seemed like they were solved by just adding in other things at random, but it kind of fits the weird vibe so it’s easier to forgive than in some other “short filmmaker tries something longer” debuts. Another pile movie, Motivational Growth, had similar issues while targeting the same kind of audience, and they were both made around the same time – must have been something in the air around then, i.e. something I appreciate and mostly enjoy if not outright love. I find myself gravitating more toward offbeat stuff lately while getting less and less interested in traditional fare like Last Voyage of the Demeter, so I hope there are more in this vein coming along (I was disheartened to see O’Mahoney hasn’t made anything since, short or not), and also that they end up in my ever shrinking pile!

What say you?


Malevolence 3: Killer (2018)

AUGUST 14, 2023


According to Amazon, I purchased my Blu-ray of Malevolence 3: Killer in October of 2018, which means it’s been sitting there for five years waiting for me to finally get the energy to watch it. Why would I need "energy", you ask? Because despite being a big fan of the first two films (the second one was simply called Bereavement when released, though it’s been since retitled Malevolence 2: Bereavement), I knew this one was compromised due to the tragic death of one of its main actors with only about half the film being shot. Being an independent production that was already strapped for cash, writer/director/bunch of other things Stevan Mena couldn’t afford to just reshoot with a different actor, so after sitting on his completed footage for about two years, he figured out a way to salvage some of the man’s performance and his story with some new actors, adding new scenes, changing the ending, etc. So basically, a Frankenstein’d movie, most of which never turn out all that good.

And guess what: it’s not very good. It’s not a disaster, but it’s not a very good trilogy closer either, and I’d be curious if the original version would have even been all that much better. For starters, Mena shot the movie on digital this time, so it was already losing the old-school charm of the others, which were shot on film (Super 16 in Malevolence’s case), which along with the period settings truly made it feel like some lost slasher of the golden era for these things. Neither film was particularly inventive when it came to the story, but it was the “back to basics” approach (more so in the first one; Bereavement was closer to survival horror than traditional slasher) that made it stand out in the post-Scream, “everything has to be ironic” era. It was just a straightforward slasher, with some green but not intentionally “bad acting” performances, that made it work as well as it did. But here, by shooting digitally (and doing almost nothing to sell the supposed 1999 setting, as Killer narratively takes place only a day after the original) it instead feels like another generic slasher from the 2010s, with little to distinguish itself from so many others.

But more troublesome is how little it connects to the first two. For those uninitiated, Malevolence was the middle part of the story, with Bereavement, despite coming out later, actually the first part. I assumed there was some solid reason for doing it this way that would become clear with this new film, but we learn almost nothing about killer Martin Bristol here, and there’s no real reason for him to go after the people he kills in this one. You know that scene in Halloween II where Michael kills that one neighbor girl after he robs the Elrods of their kitchen knife, and how it seems like an unnecessary detour considering he’s supposedly going after Laurie? (Hardcore fans know the scene was added later to get another kill in, but that’s irrelevant.) Well that’s kind of how this whole movie feels, except it's just the padding with none of the connected payoff. We pick up immediately after the events of Malevolence, which ended on Martin going after the two survivors (the blonde woman and her daughter). Whether it was the aging or actor availability or what, we don’t get a proper resolution to this cliffhanger – their bodies are just found later, and Martin sets his sights on a trio of college girls who rent a house together somewhere in the suburbs.

(He also kills the woman who lives next door to them, which results in the Final Girl having to look out for the woman’s daughter – a plot point that also surfaced in The Third Saturday in October Part V, another throwback slasher. Did I miss this plot happening in one of the OGs?)

Why these particular people, you may ask? Your guess is as good as mine! It was established in the first one that he wasn’t exactly cruising the town for victims, offering more of a Jason style “they were in his territory” kind of a motive (for lack of a better word), but here he’s just slicing up folks around town at random, which gives the film a properly high body count and even a few '80s style unusual kills (lawnmower blade!), but it doesn’t quite gel with the MO he displayed earlier, so even though it’s the same actor it feels like a different character entirely. His whole “inability to feel pain” thing doesn’t even really come up; he is shot near the end and naturally escapes, but that’s common among all masked slashers, so it’s not exactly notable. Malevolence offered the twist that the killer was not the guy who kidnapped the kid in the first scene, but the (now older) kid himself, and then Bereavement showed how he got to be that way, but now it’s just standard stalk 'n slash fare, with zero payoff for the confusing timeline stuff. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just say it’s X number of years later and the FBI Agent Perkins (Kevin McKelvey, I believe the lone returning cast member besides Jay Cohen as the killer) still obsessed with finding him, as opposed to halfheartedly saying it’s the next day when there’s no real in-plot reason for it? And then they could say these girls were living on the ground that used to be his factory/home, since razed, which would at least give him some sort of motive for setting his sights on them.

Of course, it’s possible that this is where the death of the actor put a wrench into things, as he was playing one of the FBI guys along with Perkins. Mena’s solution was to give Perkins a couple other agents to assist him, so basically every time we see him he’s with one of the three, to give the impression that there’s a whole team working on this and whenever Perkins is with one, the other two are following up on a different lead. But that leads me to believe that while perhaps the “buddy movie” element (as Mena refers to it) was lost, it didn’t have too much effect on the plot as a whole, as he hired two new actors to handle the deceased performer’s role in the scenes he didn’t film, assigning them his original dialogue. And I can’t imagine for a second that whatever changes he was forced to make to the script had him somehow omitting the reason Martin was going after these random girls who don’t appear to live anywhere near him, and that’s a big part of why the movie doesn’t measure up to the others. Long story short, I don’t doubt the film took a hit from the actor’s loss, but it seems there was something “less than” about the whole project from the get-go.

Mena provides a commentary, as always, but while he starts off about the actor’s death and how he almost considered abandoning the movie entirely, after that initial explanation he rarely speaks about that element, instead focusing on the usual low budget pitfalls, working as his own DP this time (in addition to composing and editing as he had done for the other two), etc. Most surprising and delightful: he points out that the teenaged girl from Malevolence actually came back to play her corpse, even though you only see her legs because she had aged too much (again, it’s supposed to be the next day) so they couldn’t show her older face. The dedication! I wish he spent a little more time explaining what the scenes he couldn’t use (and says he’ll never release out of respect for the actor) would have entailed, however; he makes it clear that not everything was able to be given to the other two actors he hired, but doesn’t get into specifics. It’s very possible that the reason the stuff with the girls is so random is because it was only meant to give the film some kills in between longer FBI scenes, only for it to become the focus, but if so he doesn’t say as much. He also notes that they didn’t have a dedicated documentary team, which explains why the “making of” on the disc is just a collection of random, narration-free behind the scenes shots and outtakes. Oh and he says his sound team didn’t even realize it wasn’t film until he told them, which I guess means it’s a good thing that they’re sound guys and not visual guys, because yikes – it’s not even a good digital look!

Of more use is a ten minute piece on how he composed the music, which is interesting as he’s not trained in such matters but the score, while obviously owing a lot to Carpenter along with everything else on screen (his lifts from Halloween, a sort of tradition for this series, are more overt than ever), is one of the film’s/series’ best assets. The disc also opens on a reel of trailers for all of Mena’s films, including this one, which is amusing as I had managed to go five years without seeing a frame of it only to have some of it shown/somewhat spoiled right before I finally sat down, as I assumed it was a different movie at first because why would there be a trailer for it beforehand? But it seems he’s gotten the rights back to all of his films (the other two in this series and Brutal Massacre), which were released by Anchor Bay (RIP), so good for him. Considering the uphill battles he’s fought on this series (and how Brutal Massacre is essentially autobiographical) it’d be annoying if they got swallowed up in some merger and making money for execs who probably didn’t even know what they were.

Oh well. Again, I don’t think the film was ever going to measure up to the first two, but I was disappointed to see it fell short of those already lowered expectations. Like I said, it’s not unwatchable or anything, but it’s just so perfunctory – if it wasn’t part of an established franchise I don’t think anyone would have ever paid it any mind. There’s no real hook to any of it (he doesn’t even wear his creepy sack mask, or any mask at all), it’s not particularly well made, there’s no atmosphere… the generic subtitle turned out to be kind of a warning. I feel bad for Mena as I know he is capable of delivering when he’s got the resources to do so, and let's not forget that even the Fast & Furious team, with its blank check budget and CGI miracles, couldn’t completely fix their movie after their own actor was lost halfway through. But maybe he should have gone with his gut and just abandoned it, so we could just imagine a more fitting finale than what we ended up getting.

What say you?


The Last Voyage Of The Demeter (2023)

AUGUST 13, 2023


I didn't start writing about horror movies until 2006, and at that point, The Last Voyage of the Demeter was already on its second round of rewrites after the initial version started falling apart. Since then a series of directors have come and gone, and considering the final version has seven known writers in addition to Bram Stoker, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the film feels hollow; whatever original spark may have existed in its original draft has been sanded (rewritten) away, so all that's left is a technically proficient and occasionally engaging monster movie, but without any genuine excitement or obvious passion. It's just THERE.

The concept is fine: taking the Demeter chapter from Stoker's Dracula (which, I hope I don't have to explain, depicts how he got from Transylvania to London) and expanding it to a full length feature, pitched more or less as "Alien but on Dracula's boat" (a scene where the ship's men fret about their bonuses seems to be a direct tip of the hat to Ridley Scott's classic). But not only is it not as novel as it might have been once upon a time, since they basically already did that in the second "episode" (basically a movie) of BBC's Dracula from 2020 (which is terrific and should be seen by anyone reading this, if they haven't already), but it also lacks the mystery of that film. The crew of the Nostromo didn't know what they were dealing with, and neither did we - we learned along with it. Here maybe our heroes don't know who/what Dracula is, but we in the audience do, so we're always several steps ahead of the characters, several of whom are fairly anonymous (there are two mates who I literally couldn't tell apart), unlike Scott's memorable crew. A better comparison might be Alien 3, where there were a few standouts (including a Game of Thrones guy! Charles "Tywin" Dance there, Liam "Davos" Cunningham here) and a bunch of glorified extras (prisoners, in that case).

Also, Alien's timeline made sense, whereas this film's month long journey is shown to be doomed almost from the start, when "something" (read: Dracula) kills all of the livestock meant to serve as the crew's food. After two weeks Drac starts helping himself to the crew, which would be fine if there were like 30 guys on board, but there are a total of ten, one of whom is a victim already stored away in one of the Count's wooden crates and thus not in any danger until she gives off her obligatory exposition. The first victim is explained away as possibly drunk and fell overboard, but it's not long until most of them have seen the creature, at which point the movie should be basically one non-stop hunt, right? Like in, er, Alien? Nope, they keep going as normal, with the Captain (Cunningham) demanding two men take each watch at night, an amusing line because at that point there's only like four left anyway. And it's not a particular big boat, so why they can't find him in a single day (when he's sleeping, of course) is just silly, let alone after several. Since the whole "Bulgaria to London by boat" aspect doesn't make a lick of sense anyway (look at a map if you're confused as to why), there's clearly some huge liberties with geography, so why make up the arbitrary month-long time it would take when it just weakens the story?

Part of what got me excited for the film was the comparisons to Hammer movies, but I'm not sure which ones they were watching because two of the issues I had would never happen under Terence Fisher's watch. One is that the film is too damn long, running just under two hours when most Hammer movies had the good sense to come in at 90 or less. Sure, all movies are longer now, but usually there's a story that demands such length. Here the plot is "Dracula is on a ship and kills everyone", a mystery that even a complete novice wouldn't have a chance to see unfold because it (sigh) starts at the end, with the doomed ship already crashed on the shores of England, crew dead/missing. There's no real point to any of this material (there's no real twist to the other end of this framing device), and lessens the impact of the boat crashing on the rocks when it happens.

The other thing is that Hammer movies notably, at times even laughably ended as soon as the monster was dispatched; if credits weren't already rolling more than 60 seconds after Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster met his (temporary) end, something was amiss. Here, we get an extended and very obnoxious scene where the film's lone survivor (I won't spoil it because I guess it technically counts as a surprise as to which one it is, when you consider the rest of the cast) has voiceover explaining that they're not finished with Dracula and blah blah blah setup for The Second Last Voyage of Demeter or whatever you'd call a sequel to a film with such a definitive title. Even if the film hadn't tanked at the box office, ensuring no sequel would ever exist, it would have been a pretty weak way to end the film, and again goes against whatever "Hammer style" approach they were taking. Those movies all ended definitively and would be retconned or explained in a sequel IF ticket sales encouraged them to make one! At some point they got it backwards, and it sucks.

On the plus side, it was cool to see Dracula as a monster again, as opposed to the usual handsome guy (especially since Universal already had one of those this year with Renfield, a far more inspired film). He talks a little, and it's an actual actor in makeup as opposed to a CGI creation, but there is nothing typically *human* about their appearance, and director André Øvredal uses it sparingly, sticking him in shadows and lightning-strike glimpses even in the third act. And the R rating is fully earned, with very gruesome throat gouges, a couple icky demonstrations of what happens to vamps in the sun, and other bloody showcases (he sure wastes a lot of his food, but whatever). Luckily, Øvredal doesn't apply that sense of showmanship to the animal deaths - they're all killed offscreen (including a dog, just fair warning). Tear a guy's head off, sure, but do not show us a pig being bitten!

And the cast was fine; Cunningham is always a pleasure to watch, as are Corey Hawkins (as the newest member of the crew and also the doctor) and David Dastmalchian (first mate), all of whom commit to their performances and keep things lively even when they're repeating beats from previous scenes (sometimes it feels like Dastmalchian's character merely forgot about earlier events whenever a new body turns up). I didn't recognize anyone else, but the script didn't give much for anyone else to really work with; even the lone female doesn't particularly stand out beyond, well, being the lone female. She's tasked with some of the exposition and thankfully spared a romance with Hawkins (or decidedly less consensual attention from the rowdier mates), so it could be worse, but at one point Noomi Rapace was cast in this role (assuming the basic plot was always the same across twenty years of development) and it's clearly not a role she'd have much interest in, considering how thin it was. Bear McCreary's main theme was pretty good too, though I can't deny I wish Thomas Newman had stuck with the film (yep, even composers came and went on this thing), as he doesn't do a lot of genre work but one of the few exceptions was The Lost Boys, so it would have been interesting to see him return to vamp fare with another 35 years of experience to draw from.

I get sort of sad when a movie like this comes along and doesn't grab me, because on paper it's the very thing I wish to see more often: an R rated monster movie designed to actually be scary. And I'm a sucker for contained location horror, plus it basically unfolds like one of my beloved slasher films. But it just never really came together for me, always feeling like it was just putting its pieces into play before stepping things up, only for that escalation to never really come. There are some inspired moments, such as Hawkins' heartbreaking reveal that the reason he, a Cambridge-trained doctor, was in Romania looking for work is because he was hired based on reputation only to arrive and be shunned because he was Black, and a funny little bit where Dastmalchian questions how his education could be any use at the sea, but those moments are a. few and far between and b. notably not part of the horror-driven scenes. Øvredal knows how to make suspense in confinement work (Autopsy of Jane Doe is an all timer), but he never managed to really raise my pulse here - there was more tension in the damn Nun II trailer beforehand (that magazine flipping bit) than I ever felt on this Voyage.

What say you?


King On Screen (2022)

AUGUST 9, 2023


I think it's safe to say that there isn't a horror movie fan alive who has never seen a Stephen King adaptation. Every few years there's a new must-see film, so even if you're a teen fan reading this you've probably seen at least one half of Muschietti's It or the new Pet Sematary, and I doubt there's a major genre enthusiast over 30 who hasn't seen The Shining. And if you have ever watched TNT on your cable package, you've seen Shawshank Redemption - it's just a cold hard fact. On The Kingcast, the guests always share their origin stories, and you hear some variation of "I saw the movie young because my parent loved the book and took me to see it" over and over - he's just inescapable in that way. Nearly all of our great horror masters: Carpenter, Cronenberg, Romero, Hooper, etc. all took at least one crack at one of his stories, like a rite of passage of sorts. King on Screen is basically a celebration of that fact, offering 100 minutes of anecdotes and analysis from those folks who helped introduce him into our permanent conscious.

Well, not them, specifically - Hooper and Romero have passed away; Carpenter and Cronenberg presumably couldn't be reached or simply said no if they were. But there are two dozen or so other filmmakers who are on board to discuss their films and those of their colleagues, from the obvious choices like Frank Darabont, Mike Flanagan, and Mick Garris, to some deeper cuts like Scott Hicks (Hearts in Atlantis) and Jeff Beesley (Dolan's Cadillac). It's that range that kind of proves the point on its own, without even having to watch the film. I mean, what else could connect an Oscar winner like Taylor Hackford to B-movie extraordinaire Mark L. Lester? As someone (Darabont, if memory serves) points out near the end of the film, King's gone from being someone who infused his work with pop culture to BEING that pop culture himself, to the extent that his work is a shorthand for parody and homage across a variety of genres. A montage of visual references to Tim Robbins' hands to the sky moment in Shawshank depicts everything from other genre movies to kids' cartoons, and it's kind of beautiful to see.

It's a great moment in a documentary that has quite a few, but what it lacks is cohesion. After a clever but too long opening that packs in as many references as it can during a short scene of a woman traveling to deliver a painting (Cujo walks past as she enters a store that advertises "strawberry pies that make you thinner", etc), the film is just an endless series of talking heads from the filmmakers (no actors, no other writers, no historians - just white male directors, more on that soon) talking about King's impact in their careers and movies as a whole. And that's fine, but there's no rhythm to any of it; filmmaker Daphné Baiwir just bounces around at will, without going in any particular order in terms of the films' releases (or that of their namesake novels, either) and little to no natural bridge from one topic to the next.

And the topic is usually just a particular film, rather than grouping them by theme (like, "The ones about writers" or "The TV adaptations" or whatever). There's some biographical info on King early on, and his accident is covered with some detail around the halfway point, but other than that it's just a film coming up and a few people talking about it, sometimes going on tangents that have nothing to do with King specifically. At one point it feels like you're just watching a documentary about The Green Mile, as you get anecdotes about some dummy bodies not looking right and needing to be reshot, Tom Hanks sticking around to read his lines off camera for the other actors, etc. Fine stories on their own (Darabont is one of those guys who can make any story fun to listen to), but what does that have to do with the world of King adaptations, outside of the fact that it merely IS one of them? You got Darabont, why not spend some time talking about the movies that never got made, such as his take on Long Walk (I bring that one up because another attempt, this time from André Øvredal, apparently just fell apart), instead of how he came to cast Michael Clarke Duncan? It's just very scattershot like that throughout.

And as mentioned, it's all just white guys talking. To be fair, there's a slim group of NON white guy options if they were limiting themselves to just the people who directed his books (as opposed to actors or producers), and Baiwir said at a Q&A that they were turned down by those rare exceptions like Mary Lambert and Kimberly Pierce, but one of the few times the movie ever has a specific topic is how well King writes women (including a very funny anecdote from Hackford where a film professor looked at his unisex name "Taylor" and assumed it was a woman, saying Dolores Claiborne worked as well as it did because Hackford could bring a woman's perspective to the material), and it's a little weird to see it play out without a single, you know, woman. All these dudes saying that King delivers on that front, none of them actually able to confirm it as one themselves. Maybe they all asked their wives or sisters to check.

It also sometimes dwells a little longer on lesser material simply because the director was there. Like it was nice of Tod Williams to give his time, but as Cell rightfully ranks as one of the worst theatrically released King adaptations in history (a few of the Children of the Corn sequels actually have higher Rotten Tomatoes averages), maybe we don't need to hear about it more than, say, Stand By Me or Christine. It's also odd how, given the topic of "King + Movies", it skips over Maximum Overdrive (his lone directorial effort) and mostly brushes past Sleepwalkers (his first original script for a movie), especially the latter considering Garris is there. And Castle Rock, a show that exists because of the incredible world he had created, where characters could come in and out of the story like a kid smashing all his action figures together, is also largely MIA, despite basically proving the doc's point that his characters are what makes him so compelling as opposed to this or that scary scene.

It's funny; the end credits (set to "Pet Sematary") has a bunch of odds and ends from various interviews, but it's really not much more random than the bulk of the film itself. Again, the stories themselves are mostly fun to listen to, and I never found myself arguing with any major point they were making, but as a whole it felt like an overlong DVD bonus feature that might run five minutes, where the cast and crew of an adaptation gush about the original novel for a few minutes and that's it. With a little more structure and guest variety (why not talk to the writers, who had the unenviable job of whittling down his massive tomes?) it could be essential viewing - they certainly had enough talent involved to warrant the attention of any King scholar. But as is, it's mostly just something you can throw on in the background, chuckle at a few of the stories or observations, and then kind of forget about it. And it seems to me that King has earned a little more than that.

What say you?


Meg 2: The Trench (2023)

AUGUST 7, 2023


I was recently talking to someone about why sequels are such a tough nut to crack, because a movie's grosses aren't equal to the people who actually liked it and will return for more, but common wisdom means spending *more* money on a followup, meaning you have to earn new viewers (and then some) to make up for the ones who won't be fooled again. And also, everyone who loved a movie did so for different reasons, and unless you're making the exact same movie it's impossible to satisfy all those needs; having more of one thing means having less of another. So it's a shame I hadn't already seen Meg 2: The Trench at the time, because it was a perfect example of that very dilemma. If your favorite thing was Jason Statham, you'll be stoked to learn he's even more Statham-y in this one! But if your favorite thing was Li Bingbing or Ruby Rose, I got some bad news! And if your favorite thing was the sharks themselves... well, they're back, of course. Lateral move there.

The first film was a surprise hit in 2018, so naturally a sequel would follow (Statham's busy schedule and covid made it take longer than it presumably would have), but one concern is that despite the grosses, it wasn't a beloved movie. The main issue folks had (including me, though I mostly still had a good time) was that it took far too long for the shark to get to a populated area, and its PG-13 rating kept it from being as carnage-heavy as you might as well be when it's a big/dumb/loud summer movie. So how do you do a sequel that addresses those issues for those who had them, but apply the "if it ain't broke" rule for those who didn't have any problem with the pacing or gore levels?

Turns out they just kind of played it safe in every department except for the choice of director. The first film was directed by Jon Turteltaub, a perfectly serviceable guy who makes normal/enjoyable movies like the National Treasures and Phenomenon; an odd choice for a killer shark movie to be sure, but the exact guy you need for a megabudget film that can more or less appeal to everyone. This time they got Ben Wheatley, who is the complete opposite of Turteltaub, in that his films serve very niche audiences and are even hit or miss among those folks (I like Kill List and High-Rise, but found Free Fire and In The Earth to be rather interminable), making him an equally odd choice for this kind of movie but for very different reasons. Alas, Wheatley didn't make a movie for his fans; there's a few inspired touches here and there (the practical mouth chomp seen in the trailer among them) but if you told me it was Turteltaub again I wouldn't have doubted it. But hey, Wheatley makes interesting things and if taking a paycheck gig like this means "from the director of Meg 2" secures funding for something he and his fans are more into, that's fine with me.

Anyway, as the title implies, our characters spend more of the movie in the trench this time, having designed some new submersibles that allow them to quickly penetrate the thermocline layer that keeps the trench's inhabitants from going up to the surface, without leaving the big hole that allowed the Meg to escape last time. But once they're down there they discover an illegal drilling operation, and the evil guy running it sets off a few bombs to try to kill Statham and all his pals, which naturally fails but the explosion manages to cause a giant hole in the thermocline, allowing even more stuff to get through. But it also broke our heroes' submersibles, so they have to walk to the drilling operation's base and find a different way to get to the surface. All this stuff takes up around a third of the runtime, and while it's exciting enough on its own (it's like a cross between The Abyss and Poseidon Adventure), there is precious little shark action within it, so if you felt the first film didn't have enough of that sort of thing, I have to warn you that they offer about the same exact amount this time. There are more Megs, sure, but it doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things, and they never do anything together besides provide overhead shots of their fins traveling across the screen. There are little "Raptor Sharks" to allow for some on-land action (I don't know what they are exactly, but they swim like fish but can run around on land too and there's a "the grass parts as they approach the humans" scene straight of Lost World, so "Raptor Sharks" is my term!), but this stuff is rarely anywhere near as satisfying as seeing the big one do its thing.

But like I said, if you are a fan of Statham, they have upped the "Statham movie" quotient considerably. In the first film his role coulda been anyone believable enough to swim/drive boats/occasionally fire a weapon, but this one seems tailored for his usual screen persona. In the opening scene he sneaks onto a ship that's been illegally dumping toxic waste into the ocean and gets to kick a few asses, and then once they get to the drillers' base he gets an extended one on one fight with the bad guy that could have been in any big action movie from the 80s and 90s. And then the movie settles into full on Die Hard mode for a bit, as the bad guys take control of Statham's company base and it's up to him and a few others (including Cliff Curtis, among the handful of returning cast members) to take them out. Shark? What shark? I'm having fun with all this stuff! But I can definitely see it being a make or break moment, especially for those who were hoping that the sequel status plus a genuine horror guy with Wheatley would mean more chompy chomp.

Finally, the sharks all beeline to a populated area, this time something called "Fun Island" which is a destination resort for partying 40 year olds, it seems. They get around the obvious geographical handicap by having what seems like a half mile long bridge out to a quartet of tanning/pool/tiki bar type "pods", i.e. somewhere the sharks (and the giant octopus, whose appearance is barely longer than it appeared in the trailer; I'm not even sure if Statham is aware of its existence) can logically swim to/under in order to claim victims who are too far from the beach to just run to safety. The body count SEEMS higher, but it's like Cropsy doubling his count in The Burning with the canoe massacre - a shark eating five people at once doesn't make up for the time it could have been eating people one by one. And Wheatley seems afraid to kill off many named characters; I don't think a single "good guy" character dies in the second half of the film, saving all the carnage for bad guys (duh) and anonymous beachgoers.

Then again, maybe they just wanted to ensure they had options for returning characters for Meg 3, since a few of the folks who survived the first film are MIA here. Bingbing's character is killed off without explanation (a memorium photo is the extent of it) and her brother (Jing Wu) steps in to fill her duties at the company (we are told he was off trying to find his own path prior to this film, hence why no one mentioned him before). But Ruby Rose's character is gone, more or less replaced by Skyler Samuels, as is Statham's ex wife (Jessica McNamee), though we get a suitable replacement with Melissanthi Mahut as Rigas. Bingbing was originally announced as returning, so I'm not sure what happened there, but there are moments in the film (that I can't spoil, but vague hints for those who have seen it, Samuels' involves a video call and Mahut's involves a choice near the escape pods) that would have landed much better with Rose and McNamee's characters intact instead of these "find and replace the name" substitutes we have no history with (Mahut even has a line suggesting she WAS around last time). Nothing against the performers (indeed, as a Scream Queens stan I was happy to see Samuels), but I'd be willing to bet that the first draft(s) had the OG characters in these spots and not much time was spent differentiating them when the actresses couldn't/wouldn't return for whatever reason. Cliff Curtis gets more to do though, so that's nice.

As for the 3D: it was OK, nothing essential. I wanted to see it in 4DX for full ridiculousness, but after hearing so many disappointed takes from like-minded pals who saw it earlier, I decided I'd settle for standard 3D at an AMC, where I could A-List my ticket rather than drive all the way downtown for a full priced ticket. Now that I've seen it, I can't say I regret my choice, but I wouldn't have been angry either. It was a pretty good movie, just like the first. I assume it's a catch 22 kind of thing; the FX are terrific and thus the movies cost a lot, which means they can't go R or they'll have no shot of getting their money back. But the FX on an R-rated movie budget would suck, and then we'd complain about that too. So, at least for me, the decision to go full on action movie to fill time is a good one, as you get a different (cheaper) form of excitement. It's a shame a lot of the money shots are in the trailer, but there's one part that isn't, involving a Statham one-liner, that made the entire thing worthwhile to me. I guess it comes down to whether you want shark action, specifically, or just B-movie nonsense of all kinds. If the latter, I think it's an improvement on the original. If the former, I can definitely understand why folks feel let down that this followup has nearly all of the same issues in that regard.

What say you?


Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (1972)

JULY 31, 2023


Despite being one of the all time most giallo-y giallo titles ever assembled, Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (Italian: Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave) is utterly meaningless to the story. It’s actually just an in-joke to a note seen in the earlier The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, which shares director Sergio Martino and star Edwige Fenech. Making it even more puzzling is that it’s actually a bit of a loose adaptation of Poe’s The Black Cat, so they coulda beat Fulci to the punch by nearly a decade. Silly!

But regardless of the title, this is a top notch giallo, and my favorite of the ones from Martino I have seen, or at least tied with Torso. Like Argento, he did a few decent ones before really nailing it, and I think this one was his Deep Red (making Torso his Tenebre, if you want to keep going with the comparison). It’s nowhere near as convoluted as Mrs. Wardh (which hilariously had the villains explaining the plot to each other at one point) or as unfocused as All The Colors of the Dark, but it’s still more involving than the usual “trying to get the inheritance and/or jewels” plot (though fear not, it still has one of those shoehorned in near the end; maybe it’s as obligatory as the J&B bottle and has to be in there somewhere?). What’s fun is that it starts off with a seemingly obvious story of a (married) man who just murdered his young lover, only for a second victim to come along and prove his innocence – but only to us, as the cops (and his wife) suspect him of both murders.

Here's the thing though: the culprit is caught with plenty of the movie left, giving you a “OK, where is this going from here?” feeling that is often lacking from these things. I mean don’t get me wrong, I enjoy most that I see, but they definitely get a bit samey, which along with the meaningless titles makes it hard to remember which ones I've seen and which I haven't. Here, Martino takes a few of the standard elements (like the aforementioned jewel stuff) but mixes and matches in a way that keeps it from feeling like a rerun. In fact when I put it on I thought I might have seen it before, only for a few things to assure me I would have remembered it, such as the fact that Fenech’s character seduces her aunt AND uncle in the narrative. Also, the cat is pretty hilarious; its name is Satan and it spends most of the movie tormenting the lady of the house, prompting her to carry out several unsuccessful attempts to kill it. And at the end of the movie it actually helps the police identify the murderer! So good.

Now, I have to warn it’s not all fun and games. The husband is an awful jerk even by the standards of these things, groping his Black servant (and encouraging his party guests to do the same) and sexually assaulting his wife more than once, plus slapping her around every now and then. I mean yeah he gets what’s coming to him, and I feel anyone watching a giallo should be prepared for such material, but there’s just more of it than average. The stuff with the cat and some other goofy touches (one of the all time best/worst “let’s throw a doll off a cliff and hope people believe it’s the human victim” shots, for example) more than makes up for the unpleasantness in my opinion, but your mileage will obviously vary. Maybe it isn't great that I usually shrug off these moments in older movies, because they are gross to be sure, but I feel it's a better attitude than the folks who will try to "cancel" an older film on these grounds. To me, it's a reminder that at least some things have improved, and thus it doesn't feel as childish to be optimistic that other things can someday be better as well.

Unusual for an Arrow release, there is no commentary track, something I was so confused by I actually checked every menu to see if it was just misplaced, and confirmed with a couple of reviews. However, there are five supplements, kicking off with an interview with Martino and backed up by a longer retrospective where he is joined by Fenech and Ernesto Gastaldi, who wrote the film. Some stuff is repeated, but they all enjoy talking about the film, with Fenech in particular being refreshingly open-minded about her work, as opposed to being apologetic for it despite a few decades' worth of changed attitudes in between. Then there are a pair of video essays, one on Martino's work and the other on Fenech's, and finally an interview with Eli Roth, who cast her in Hostel II (which I now realize was probably the first time I ever saw her in anything) and has some strong insight on her work and her placement in the giallo hall of fame, as it were. So while there's no traditional commentary, there's certainly enough here to give a fan a sense of the film's origins and making, plus its legacy in general. I continue to have the same petty annoyance with Arrow's subtitled interviews on these English language discs: they should be burned in as opposed to something you toggle on/off, so us speed readers can play them on double speed and still read everything (most players don't display the subtitles when on fast-forward unless, of course, they are permanently part of the image). Martino's interview runs 35 minutes, but he's not exactly a motor mouth, so it'd be nice to get through it in half the time without missing a thing, as other blu-ray companies have thankfully done. Not a dealbreaker of course, but still, I sigh.

Arrow has put out a series of "Giallo Essentials" sets (a new volume was released last month, I just learned - I'm slipping!), one of which houses Torso, but this one appears with two others from Martino: The Case of the Scorpion's Tail and The Suspicious Death of a Minor, the latter of which I believe is the last of his gialli for me to see. Hopefully someday I'll splurge on it since I don't own Scorpion and enjoyed this one enough to not mind a double dip. Honestly, of the four of his films I've seen the only one I'm not super high on is All The Colors of the Dark, as its more supernatural/cult elements (seemingly inspired by Rosemary's Baby) aren't as interesting to me and don't mesh well with the giallo stuff. So I have little doubt I'd enjoy Minor as well, but I'd like to save it for a rainy day, as it were, as I feel at this point it's going to be harder and harder to find little gems that stick out like this one (Vinegar Syndrome's "Forgotten Gialli" sets produce the occasional winner, but for the most part... well, there's a reason theirs are called "Forgotten" and Arrow's are "Essential"). Still, I'm glad they are preserving these films and putting them together in attractive packages, as they are obviously more niche than a traditional slasher and probably don't sell as well as the likes of junk like Madman (which both Vinegar and Arrow have released), which is why I like to keep buying them. One gem like this is worth a few forgettable entries if the alternative is never being able to properly/legally see any at all.

What say you?


FTP: 11.22.63 (2016)

JULY 24, 2023


I can’t say with 100% certainty, but in my head, “The Pile” began with the blu-ray of 11.22.63, seven years ago. As I’ve explained, most of the discs in the pile were either won at trivia, blind buys, or – most common – unsolicited review copies. And by unsolicited I mean I didn’t ask for them; some studios just send stuff out to everyone on their list, while others only do it when you ask. Well, 11.22.63 was one I requested, but it unfortunately arrived at the worst possible time: when I was suddenly forced to move in the summer of 2016. Like most Los Angelenos, we were renting the place we were living in, and the owner decided she wanted to sell it, and while it would have been nice to just buy it ourselves and spare ourselves a move, we couldn't afford it. So I had to scramble to find a new place with as much free time as work would allow (my wife, who works in the mental health sector, couldn’t really join the “fun” as her day job is much harder to suddenly take time from), and thus I didn’t have much time to watch an eight hour series in a timely manner.

I tried though! I distinctly remember getting the PS4 connected to my TV and watching the first episode one night after a long day of unpacking at the new place (even more specific: my couch was at an awkward angle as unpacked boxes were in the way), hoping that maybe I could do one episode a night and get a review up within a reasonable adjacency of the time of its street date. Except I passed out before I even got through that whole episode (in my slight defense, the premiere was a double length affair), and then something came up the next night, and the next, and before I knew it the street date had long passed and I hadn’t even finished the premiere. And by that point, other things I had requested had come along for review, and rather than let THOSE slide too I just sort of backgrounded 11.22.63 for a rainy day, promising to get to it eventually. Well, that day has finally come!

The funny thing is that I never intended to review it here at HMAD; having read the book I knew it wasn’t horror, despite being from Stephen King. No, I was going to use it as one of my infrequent but welcome “mainstream” pieces on Birth Movies Death, where I wrote about non horror things outside of my usual Collins’ Crypt piece for the week. Obviously that isn’t a possibility anymore (insane that it’s been over three years now since the site died twice), and I probably could have just finally watched it to satisfy my weird feeling of guilt of requesting it only to let it sit there, but since it’s such a legacy player in “the pile” I figured (along with the King connection) it’d be fine to say a few things here and, at long last, fulfill my promise to the publicist who for all I know doesn’t even work there anymore.

Anyway, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, at least in general. Both tell the story of Jake Epping, an English teacher who is shocked to discover that the reason his buddy Al is able to sell hamburgers so cheap at his diner is because he time travels to the past to buy them. Thanks to a wormhole of sorts in the diner’s backroom closet, Al (and then Jake) is able to transport back to a specific point in time in 1958; whether he stays there for five minutes or five years, he’ll come back to a minute or so later in his own time, and if he steps through the wormhole again, it’ll just be that same moment in the past, every time. Al has decided to use the ability to prevent the assassination of JFK, but he develops cancer and dies before being able to complete the job, passing on the idea (and his notes and such) to Jake. So Jake steps through the hole prepared for a very long journey, but finds a new love named Sadie that distracts him from the mission, and also makes him not want to return to his own time. He also discovers that the past does not want to be changed, so his attempts at following Lee Harvey Oswald and getting proof he was the shooter are always derailed in some way, forcing him to stay until the actual day in question rather than just shoot Oswald immediately and go home (the story wouldn’t work with RFK, or Lincoln, or any other notably assassinated leader where the killer was clearly identified).

I must admit it wasn’t my favorite of King’s books; the weirdly long time frame (five years in between his arrival and the assassination; the show changes it to three) kept the book from feeling very urgent the way the best time travel stories do, and so it just got kind of draggy (it’s also over 900 pages). The show does attempt to speed things up a bit by reducing the number of years in between, but even with that it still feels drawn out, as if King (or the writers of the show) couldn’t decide if they were making a legit procedural about what preventing the assassination would entail (following George de Mohrenschildt! Tracking Oswald’s attempt on General Walker!) or a love story about a man who travels back 50 years and finds himself more at home than he ever was in his own time. Having it played both ways just muddles things up, something the show actually makes worse by inexplicably having scenes from Oswald’s perspective, when Jake isn’t even around. King decides to go with “Oswald acted alone”, which is for the best, but it makes these scenes weirder than they already are with the POV shift, as if they want us to have sympathy for the guy.

They also made the curious decision to upgrade the character of Bill to a full lead. In the book, Bill is barely even a supporting character; he’s a guy who helps Jake kill Frank Dunning (an abusive father to one of Jake’s students) and then has a heart attack and exits the story. Here, his backstory is the same, but after Frank is killed Jake takes Bill along for his quest, telling him he’s a time traveler and having him pose as his brother as he helps keep tabs on Oswald while Jake goes to work and/or romances Sadie. Then Bill starts falling for Oswald’s wife, which causes friction between the two. I assume this was all an effort to give Jake someone to voice what was inner monologue in the book and give it a little more visual variety since it’s a TV show and not a book, but it doesn’t fully work, and at a certain point it’s clear the writers never really figured out what to do with him. There are some other minor changes here and there (for one example, Jake and Sadie kill her psycho ex, whereas the man killed himself in the novel), but this is the biggest and also least successful.

Of course, the biggest issue with the show was the casting of James Franco as Jake. Even disregarding his icky personal life, he’s just the completely wrong choice for this character. The ideal would be Tom Hanks or Bill Paxton/Pullman circa 1995 – an everyman who you can imagine being the sort of kid who would have gone to a Presidential parade, watched the astronauts coming home on TV, etc. You know, that quintessential all American good boy who grew to be a good man. This isn’t a skillset Franco possesses; to be fair he’s actually putting in a decent performance, but it’d be like Weird Al giving 110% to play Abraham Lincoln or something. There’s just no getting around the fact that Franco is best used as a weird/stoner kinda guy, and the role is written for a completely straight arrow. Even some of his Apatow-verse cronies would have been a better option; Jason Segel or Paul Rudd can/have shed their comic persona to solid effect, but Franco never has, and it’s baffling he’d make his biggest attempt to do so here, with a preconceived character that drives nearly every second of the story.

That said, it still more or less works. The suspense scenes (Sadie’s ex attacking, everything with Frank Dunning, the assassination sequence) are all well executed, and the rest of the cast is pretty on point; Josh Duhamel was shockingly scary as Dunning (Duhamel being another actor who’d make more sense to cast as Jake), and I believe Sarah Gadon may have been put on this earth to portray the ideal 1960’s blue eyed blonde. And it was great to see Kevin J. O’Connor as the “Yellow Card Man”, the mysterious person who seems to be aware that Jake is traveling through time. Chris Cooper also shines as Al, though obviously due to the story’s nature he isn’t in it that much (the use of flashbacks to keep him around isn’t particularly successful). And the 60’s setting is pretty well depicted; there are quite a lot of exteriors but I was never taken out of it by poor VFX or obvious anachronisms (cue someone pointing out a 1962 car in a 1961 scene or something dorky like that – those people need lives. Just keep cell phones and Starbucks out of the hands of a 1960s character and I’m fine). I think a six episode structure (as opposed to nine, as the premiere is double length) would have been better as it would streamline the Bill/Oswald stuff that seems extraneous, but after so many examples of the books being robbed of their souls due to being cut down for movies it seems weird to complain that a King adaptation left too much in.

But most importantly: I can finally get rid of it. And now the oldest movie in the pile is, I believe, only like 3-4 years old. That’s some real progress.

What say you?


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